China’s police are using high-tech tools to crush protests
Chinese police have used sophisticated surveillance tools in a push to quell a nationwide wave of unrest, using facial recognition software and location data to track down and arrest protesters.
Frustration over prolonged Covid restrictions has boiled over, sparking protests demanding an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms on a scale not seen in decades.
When Beijing announced a crackdown on the protests, its vast security apparatus swung into action, using state-of-the-art surveillance to track down activists, according to a human rights lawyer who offers free legal advice to protesters.
“In Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the police have apparently used very high-tech methods,” said Wang Shengsheng, a lawyer based in the city of Zhengzhou.
– In other cities, it seems as if they have relied on surveillance footage and facial recognition, she told AFP.
Beijing police may have used phone location data either captured from on-site scanners or Covid health codes scanned by people taking taxis to areas where protests were taking place, she said.
“Many callers from Beijing were confused as to why they were contacted by the police when they were really just walking past the protest site and not participating,” she added.
“We have no idea exactly how they did this.”
– Decomposition –
Wang has received over 20 calls in the past few days from protesters or people whose friends and relatives have been arrested. Most of the detentions she was told about lasted less than 24 hours.
Protesters who contacted Wang for help have also been targeted, she said.
In Shanghai, police have confiscated the phones of all those she was in contact with who were summoned for questioning, “maybe to extract all their data,” she added.
Callers from Guangdong told Wang that their accounts on the encrypted Telegram messaging app were hacked after they registered ID documents with police on their way to a protest.
Some friends of arrested protesters in Beijing also told her they saw their friends’ Telegram accounts active while they were in custody, suggesting police may have had access to them.
– Erases the evidence –
Encrypted protester chat groups – accessible only in China with illegal VPN software – are on high alert for police infiltrators as news spreads of further arrests and threats.
Participants have urged each other to delete all evidence of the protests – including chat histories, videos and photos – from their phones pending police checks.
A Beijing resident told AFP that two friends who took part in protests in Shanghai and Beijing were detained on Sunday and Tuesday respectively.
The Shanghai protester was released on Monday night, but their phone is still in police hands, he said, asking to remain anonymous for security reasons.
On highly monitored Chinese social media apps, any user posting protest content can be easily tracked as platforms require registration with real names.
“Phone and social media swiping is likely going on in physical spaces and virtual communities,” said Rui Zhong, a China analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington.
AFP journalists saw several police officers filming protesters with small hand-held cameras at Sunday’s demonstration in Beijing.
One protester told AFP that she and five friends were called by local police after they attended Sunday’s demonstration by a riverbank in the city’s embassy district.
She later told AFP that she was summoned to the police station on Tuesday to write a statement about what happened, but was turned away after not having a recent Covid test result.
– ‘You have no privacy’ –
Users of encrypted chat groups share tips and legal advice on what to do in case they are questioned, arrested or have their phone confiscated by the police.
In Shanghai, an AFP reporter witnessed several arrests and confirmed that police had forcibly checked a protester’s phone for foreign social media apps blocked in China that have been used to spread information about the protests.
“What is the right to privacy? You have no privacy,” a police officer told a 17-year-old protester in Shanghai during a Monday crackdown, according to an audio recording he provided.
Many in attendance were first-time protesters who lacked the experience and organization needed to build cohesive social movements, according to some protesters who spoke to AFP.
“When people disappear or are killed in ordinary criminal cases, we don’t see such high-tech tracking technologies,” Wang said.
“But in public protests, we seem to see sophisticated digital technologies being used.”
“I feel very sad, because we have such effective technology, but it is being used in the wrong place.”
“If our phones can be seized and manipulated at will, if our accounts can be logged into (without our consent), what freedom do we have left?”